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Regulatory bodies and authoritative dictionaries for English

Many times I searched across several books for the usage of some words and many times I've found my results quite contradictory. For example, if you look for the plural of "sorry" you will find many dictionaries that don't even consider "sorries" or "sorrys" as a word, but you can find others that do, and/or find many references in books to such terms (both of them in this case).

So, which one to believe?
And how is one to back that decision up?

Try this case:
and you won't find any of those terms in the Collins English Dictionary for example.


There is really no "official" source for the English language, but there are sources that are generally well-respected and well-accepted. For spelling, that would be the common dictionaries - Collins, Merriam-Webster, Oxford, etc.

While one would hope that all book publishers would hold their books to the same standards, mistakes slip through and some authors might deliberately mis-use/mis-spell words for effect. So I wouldn't trust any old book to be an authoritative source for spelling.

In your particular case, sorry is considered an adjective in every dictionary I checked, so a plural form - be it sorrys or sorries - doesn't make any sense. I understand how people use it, but it's a made-up word so spell it however you like.

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    You can't have it both ways - if there's no "official" source for English, how can you dismiss pluralised sorry as a "made-up word"? But in fact I do agree you can spell it how you like - on the grounds that several thousand written instances in NGram show no clear preference for one over the other. Anyway, +1 for everything else you said! :) – FumbleFingers Dec 6 '11 at 23:50
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    I guess I don't see a contradiction. None of the dictionaries are empowered by any official English Language Authority. Sometimes they disagree, but if you're doing something that's not in ANY of them (like using the adjective "sorry" as a plural noun), I think it's fair to say you're making something up. That's not a criticism - people make up new words all the time. :) – Lynn Dec 7 '11 at 0:17
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    IF it were to be the case that thousands of written instances of some "word" overwhelmingly used one particular spelling, I would unhesitatingly say that was the "standard" spelling. Even if the "word" didn't actually appear in any dictionaries. Anyway, my link clearly shows that both sorrys and sorries have been used for a long time. They may not be explicitly included in dictionaries - but as I recall, "fuck", for example, wasn't in Webster's for many many decades. People who used the word before that certainly weren't "making it up". – FumbleFingers Dec 7 '11 at 0:39
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    FWIW, the OED has just this one citation that includes ‘sorries’: ‘Then came the thanks and the sorries, and the tantalising promises to write if they thought more of him.’ It’s from ‘Mr. Facey Romford's Hounds’ by the nineteenth century writer, R. S. Surtees. – Barrie England Dec 7 '11 at 8:12

One must distinguish between English grammar and English spelling, which is modern technology (naturally, therefore, full of bugs, since "modern" in this case means 17th-Century).

It's easy to see how one might need a plural form for any English word, since vocabulary isn't inflected and can function as many different parts of speech. So, the buyer for the toy department writes an email to the distributor and says

OK, we'll take 2 dozen Sorries and 3 dozen Monopolies.

or the person taking reservations for a Big Event writes

We've got 83 yesses, 55 maybes, and 44 sorries.

It's quite true that there is no international standard for English spelling (what would be its ISO number?), but there are plenty of dictionaries, though they don't always give the information one's looking for.

In any event, "correct" spelling is really only of use to current search engines. By the time they get better, which will be soon, anybody will be able to spell English any way they want -- which is in fact the current situation -- and still be accessible to search.

There's no need to "back up" a spelling decision. Spelling is just speech representation. Your speech is either understood or it's not. That's all; you pays your money and you takes your choice.

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  • "One must distinguish between English grammar and English spelling, which is modern technology". What do you refer by "which is modern technology", the spelling or the distinction or both grammar and spelling? – Theta30 Dec 7 '11 at 3:40
  • Sorry. English spelling is modern technology. – John Lawler Dec 7 '11 at 3:53
  • The plural of a proper noun does not change the vowel. That's 2 dozen Sorrys and 3 dozen Monopolys. Plus I'll take 5 wireless mouses to give to the Kennedys. – MetaEd Dec 7 '11 at 6:11

I think that if you don't find the term you are looking for in one of the major dictionaries, then you should expect to be challenged on it. But English is a very fluid language and tends to to absorb new words and usages. (Including ending a sentence with a dangling participle or starting one with a conjunction.)

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  • And that's a very fluid metaphor as well. :-) – MetaEd Dec 7 '11 at 6:13
  • Ending a sentence with a dangling participle or starting one with a conjunction is not new in any way, shape, form, or manner. In fact it's older than any dictionary. – RegDwigнt Dec 10 '11 at 13:57

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